Introduction - Woman's World
This is the first of two pages. This page contains descriptions of each
character, and a plot summary of the tales associated with each one (if
they exist). If you click on the notepad symbol, you will hear Chaucer's
description, as given in the General Prologue of The
Canterbury Tales (in a modern translation) a transcript of the reading
is also provided as well as the original medieval text for comparison.
The second page contains background information
about the churl's world as well as a collection of associated images.
The Prioress - The Second
Nun - The Wife of Bath
*As women formed a social
level of their own in medieval times, and because this was determined by
sex rather than by profession, all Chaucer's female pilgrims are included
together, regardless of occupation or actual social status.
||Listen and Read
The Prioress's name is Madame Eglentyne. She has very good manners
and is courteous in her speech. Her singing in church is very seemly,
as are her table manners - she rides in a very ladylike way, and
carries herself (says Geoffrey) very well. She is very tender-hearted,
and will weep if she sees a dog mistreated, or a mouse in a trap.
She feeds white bread and milk to her small dogs. Her pleated wimple
is drawn back to reveal her broad (fashionable) forehead, her well-formed
nose, her grey eyes and her soft, small, red mouth. Her cloak is
made very well. She carries a rosary made of coral beads, with
a gold brooch hanging on it - it says 'Amor vincit omnia' (Love
The Prioress's Tale
The Prioress’s Tale has been
one of the most controversial of the Canterbury Tales, because
of its apparently anti-semitic content. Arguments have been put ‘for’ and ‘against’,
but in the end, as with all of Chaucer’s work, there will
almost certainly be no definitive answer, only opinion. In a Christian
community in an Eastern city, a young boy attends a Christian school.
In order to get there, he has to pass through a Jewish ghetto.
The boy hears the anthem Alma Redemptoris Mater (bountiful/kind
Mother of the Redeemer), dedicated to the Virgin Mary. He learns
this, and sings it on his way to and from school. Hearing him sing,
the Jews are so incensed that they pay a contract killer to kill
the boy, and throw his body into a cesspit. The Virgin leads the
boy’s mother to his body by enabling it to continue singing.
When the body is taken to the nearby abbey, the abbot is instructed
to remove a grain from underneath the tongue. When he does this,
the boy is taken by the Virgin Mary into heaven.
||Theory and Genre
The Second Nun is one of those who accompany the Prioress. Apart
from the fact that she is the Prioress's deputy, 'Geoffrey' gives
no description of her.
The Second Nun's Tale
The Second Nun tells the story of
Saint Cecilia. After explaining the meanings of Cecilia’s
name, she tells how the saint was the daughter of a noble Roman,
betrothed to a young man named Valerian. Cecilia, wishing to remain
a virgin, tells her fiancé that an angel watches over her,
which he will be able to see. He must visit the ancient pope Urban
in the catacombs first. Urban gives Valerian a book about the Christian
faith, by means of which he is converted. Returning home, he sees
Cecilia with the angel. The couple are then given a crown of roses
and lilies each. Valerian sends his brother Tiburce to Urban, and
he too is converted. During a persecution, the two men are executed
for refusing to sacrifice to pagan gods. Cecilia herself, after
a spirited defence, is condemned to death. She is taken to the ‘bath’ in
her house by the executioner to be scorched to death, but she remains
cold. Ordered to cut off her head, he cannot fully remove it in
the permitted three strokes. She survives for another three days,
whilst she continues to preach the faith and prepare for her death.
Her house is made into a church, consecrated to the new saint by
||Theory and Genre
The Wife of
||Listen and Read
She is a bit deaf, which is a pity - she is so good at cloth-making
that she outshines the makers of Ypres and Ghent. No other woman
in the parish dares to go before her in church. If any do, she
gets really annoyed. The linen kerchiefs on her head are so fine
that Geoffrey estimates that those she wears on a Sunday must
weigh at least ten pounds. Her hose are of scarlet red, tightly
and her shoes are supple and new. Her face is bold pretty, and
she has a ruddy complexion - and a gap between her front teeth.
She has been a worthy woman all her life. She has married five
husbands at the church door, but Geoffrey says he won't talk
about that now. She has been to Jerusalem three times, and to
and Cologne; she has travelled in many foreign lands. She sits
comfortably on a pacing-horse, wearing a large wimple, with a
hat like a round shield on her head. An apron-like garment sits
her hips, and she has spurs on her feet. She knows all about
remedies for love-sickness, and the tricks of the trade of love
- she is
a really good companion.
The Wife of Bath's Tale
Alison, Goodwife from Bath, begins her tale with a long prologue
(or ‘preamble’ as the Friar terms it), in which she gives
selected details about her own life, in particular her love/sex life.
She has had five husbands, as well as other lovers, and is now looking
for the sixth. She was married at the age of twelve to a rich old
man, and subsequently married two more rich old men, one after the
other. Her last two husbands are the subject of much of her prologue.
The fourth husband was a lecher, who kept mistresses himself but
complained about her own conduct, especially her gossipping, her ‘gadding
about’, and her pride in her own dress. The Wife tells how
she tricked him, and managed to carry on an affair of her own, with
the clerk Jankin, who became her fifth husband after the death of
the fourth. Having married Jankin for love, despite their difference
in age (he was a young man, and she a middle-aged woman), the Wife
handed over to him all her money and possessions. She recalls how
he then attempted to dominate her, reading to her every night from
a ‘book of wikked wyves’, examples of evil women from
history. He also admonished her with quotes concerning the sinfulness
of women from learned (male) authorities, and the Wife also says
that he beat her, and yet he could still make her love him.
Eventually, the Wife recalls how she leapt up and tore a leaf out
of Jankin’s book, and he struck her. She then fell and lay
as if dead, until he, in desperation, promised to let her have sovereignty
in their marriage – and to burn the book.
The Wife of Bath tells the story
of a knight at the court of King Arthur. One day, he rapes a young
virgin, and the king hands him over to Guinevere for judgement.
He will lose his head if he cannot find out, within a year and
a day, what it is that women most desire. The knight searches until
his time is almost done, but does not receive a definitive answer.
On his way back to his death, he meets an old hag in the forest.
She offers to give him the information, if he will grant her the
first demand she makes of him. He agrees, and the answer (that
women most desire to have sovereignty over their husbands and lovers)
is adjudged correct. His life is saved. However, the old hag then
demands that he marry her. He cannot refuse, and his entreaties
do not move the hag to retract her demand. On their wedding night,
the hag gives the miserable knight a lecture on the nature of nobility – it
comes from within, not from one’s wealth or status - and
demands whether he will have her beautiful and unfaithful, or ugly
and faithful. He decides to leave the answer to her. As soon as
she has gained sovereignty over him (what women most desire) she
agrees to be both faithful and beautiful, and they live happily
||Theory and Genre -
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